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The best of poetry in the worst of times

Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era, Edited by Estelle Gershgoren Novak, University of New Mexico Press: 274 pp., $19.95 paper

March 23, 2003|Philip Levine | Philip Levine is the author of numerous books, including "New Selected Poems," "So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews" and "The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography." He has twice been awarded the National Book Award and in 1995 won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Simple Truth."

What is it like to write poetry for a country that doesn't want poetry? Ask anyone who tried doing it back in the '50s, and he or she will struggle toward an answer. ("Like making love to someone sound asleep," the Los Angeles poet Henri Coulette once said to me.)

Let's make the game even harder. Come to your art in a city in the provinces -- Birmingham, Detroit, or Bakersfield -- a place without the least literary heritage and far enough spiritually and aesthetically from New Haven or Cambridge not to find the sculptured alexandrines of the taste-makers congenial. Try doing it in a city that isn't a city but a collection of suburbs rehearsing to become one of the world's largest urban misunderstandings. Let's go for broke and add the House Un-American Activities Committee and all of the attendant ghouls hovering over your words lest a subversive thought might decide to pass through your brain. (And how is there poetry without subversive thoughts? No answer.) Just in case you considered surviving on your labors, working for a public institution -- a school, for example -- or representing that largest American constituency, those without representation, this pack of "patriotic" vultures and their henchmen and -women in the fourth estate (and the other estates as well) are there to see you're unemployable. You're thinking no poetry could survive such conditions. Think again.

In spite of all these obstacles, perhaps because of them, a group of writers in Los Angeles banded together to support one another in every way possible and created a finer poetry than the city ever deserved. (Crazy things like this happen in the worlds of poetry; in the postwar years under communist domination and strict censorship, Poland gave the world one of the greatest poetic flowerings within memory. Zbigniew Herbert, the greatest poet ever to teach in Los Angeles and the compass rose of that crop, once remarked that he considered the censor a challenge and a stimulant to the imagination. For Herbert, a poet wrote in the actual world without a free pass because he or she was an "artist." There were tactics to survival, and to become a poet, one mastered them.)

For those who ask what it was like to write under such circumstances, the answer is contained in a remarkable new volume from the University of New Mexico Press, and the answer is nothing short of inspiring. "Poets of the Non-Existent City" is also a very useful book -- a handbook for the maintenance of sanity -- for the poets of today as well as anyone else interested in an honest and accurate use of language in the current storm of lies and deceits. Anyone who thinks the American political climate is the worst it's ever been should have a look. We've got no idea what bad is. With a little help from our friends, we might develop the pluck these writers had.

First and foremost, "Poets of the Non-Existent City" is a homage to an era and a place -- Los Angeles in the decade after the end of World War II -- and to the dedicated few poets who worked to create a decent society during the shameful decade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. A collection of poetry, prose and graphic arts of the era, culled from the pages of the journals the California Quarterly and Coastlines, the book brings together 19 poets representing 13 years in the life of the city.

At the center was Tom McGrath, still -- alas -- America's greatest unread poet. In one remarkable passage in the book, McGrath tells us exactly how he found the courage to embark on his epic, "Letter to an Imaginary Friend," a book every American should be required to read before receiving a high school diploma. McGrath describes one of the informal workshops at which these L.A. writers shared and -- when necessary -- decimated each others' poetry. (Like Herbert, these poets were in and of the world.) When his friend, poet Don Gordon, asked him what he was writing or planning to write, McGrath answered that he had a notion for a long poem, but he was worried about starting. Gordon advised him to go home and write the first line that came into his head. McGrath went home and sat down as instructed, but he didn't know what to write, so he wrote, "I'm sitting here at 2716 Marsh Street Writing, turning east with the world. Dreaming of laughter and indifference," and thus was born the opening of his masterpiece, a poem he would labor over for the rest of his life. Of course only a fragment of the poem is presented in this collection, but there's enough here to incite any poetry lover to pursue the whole:

-- "From here it is necessary to ship all bodies east."

I am here in Los Angeles, at 2714 Marsh St.,

Writing, rolling east with the earth drifting toward Scorpio,

thinking,

Hoping toward laughter and indifference.

"They came through the passes,

they crossed the dark mountains in a month

of snow.

Finding the plains, the bitter water,

the iron rivers of the black North.

Horsemen,

Hunters of the hornless deer in the high plateaus of that

country,

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